Social Revolutions Beyond the Volga: Egypt and Ireland

By Aidan Beatty

In 1919, a “Revolution” broke out in Egypt; since 1882, Britain had held an outsized role in Egyptian affairs but never directly ruled the country, instead preferring to use local royalty as intermediaries.  In the “Wilsonian moment”[1] after 1918, Egyptian nationalists believed that a liberation from British control was at hand.  A delegation (Wafd) was formed, under the leadership of Sa’ad Zaghloul (1859-1927), which would travel to the Paris Peace Conference to present Egypt’s demands for self-determination to the world.  The refusal of the British governor of Egypt to allow the Wafd’s travel request fomented a series of demonstrations into the following year both in Cairo and elsewhere; the demonstrations became collectively known as the Egyptian Revolution, a key moment in modern Egyptian history and, indeed, the backdrop for perhaps the greatest work of modern Egyptian literature, Naguib Mahfouz’ Cairo Trilogy.  Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, two of the foremost scholars of the “Revolution”, are more circumspect, however, as to what had actually transpired in 1919; “In retrospect, the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 was far from being a revolution in the classic meaning of the term.”  Jankowski and Gerhsoni point out that the leadership was mainly drawn from the native elite, albeit from a new rural elite rather than the old Ottoman elite.  This elite leadership had no desire for socio-economic transformations, seeking only greater autonomy from Great Britain, and not necessarily total independence.  Attempts at rural uprisings in 1919 were “quickly repressed.”[2]

The post-Armistice period was one of international revolutionary ferment, and after the Bolsheviks took power, copycat revolutions or attempted-revolutions took place in Hungary and Bavaria.  Even in Glasgow, in the heartland of industrial capitalism, the period of “Red Clydeside” seemed to suggest that Scotland could also soon turn socialist.  The European “revolutions” of the immediate post-war years were social revolutions, aiming at – if not necessarily achieving – a major transformation of social relations and the means of production. “Revolution”, as used in the twentieth century from Algeria to Maoist China, became synonymous with socialist or communist revolutions that massively and irreparably re-ordered their societies.  The two revolutions that bookend the short twentieth century – Mexico and Iran – were major moments of social transformation (though without the dominant Marxist ideology of other 20th-century events).

With such a definition in the ascendant, the Egyptian “Revolution” takes on a wan tone.  As Gershoni and Jankowski point out, Zaghlul et al were drawn from wealthy backgrounds and were careful to prevent any rural uprisings targeting their social cohort’s property or social standing.  Their “revolution” was dedicated to preventing a social revolution.

Post-WWI Ireland provides another example of this.  The majority of Irish historians operate with a de rigueur assumption that a revolution took place in Ireland sometime between 1912/16 and 1923.  The violence of those years, the collapse in support for the Irish Parliamentary Party (IPP), the meteoric rise to power of Sinn Féin, a new sense of meritocracy, a greater sense of democracy and a widespread radicalism; all are seen as elements of a major change in Irish politics and life, a “Revolution.”  One of the first serious historical works to study the period in these terms was David Fitzpatrick’s Politics and Irish Life, a study of local politics in Clare.  This county, he argues, underwent a profound social upheaval as, with echoes of Enoch Powell, those lower down the social ladder now ‘had the whip-hand’ over those previously dominant.[3]  This collapse in deference seems, for Fitzpatrick, to have been the defining characteristic of the “Revolution.” Similarly, Senia Pašeta has studied the decline in power of an older conservative Catholic middle-class in the decades before 1918. These people were soon to be replaced, she argues, by emergent, radical lower middle-class Republicans.[4]  Sitting somewhat uneasily with these analyses, Conor Kostick’s Marxist study sees the Revolution as the intense agitation of workers and peasants’ movements, happening in parallel to the high politics of Sinn Féin and the Irish Republican Army, but generally outside of their control.[5]

Yet it is not clear what kind of revolution this all was.  It was hardly a social revolution.  The claim that a socialist revolution was imminent elides a number of messier issues; the Catholic Church had been a bulwark of social conservatism since the post-Famine “Devotional Revolution” of the latter nineteenth century; many of the “Soviets” declared in Ireland in 1919 had ambiguous or limited aims falling well short of a full-throated workers republic.  Leading nationalists like Dan Breen and P.S. O’Hegarty[6] condemned the actions of socialists, reflecting the more concrete actions taken against those who, in the midst of the crisis, seized land, went on strike, or formed soviets.[7]  As in Egypt, rural unrest, often aiming at the seizure or large landed estates, was suppressed in favour of a more socially conservative set of political goals.  If “revolution” as a phenomenon was being redefined by events beyond the Volga, Ireland was certainly not undergoing such a revolution.

For scholars like Fitzpatrick or Pašeta, the “Revolution” is defined less in conventionally proletarian terms and more along the lines of a “bourgeois revolution.”  But even here the supposed eruption of meritocracy and the sudden decline of social deference is countered by the fact that such important transformations had been underway at least since the 1870s, as Anne Kane has shown in her theoretically-sophisticated study.[8]  Indeed, as Immanuel Wallerstein has noted, revolution is a term that connotes “sudden, dramatic, and extensive change.  It emphasizes discontinuity.”  Yet, when many scholars come to study “revolutions,” what they often end up studying are the much slower, long-term social changes, that feed into ostensibly sudden rupture with the past. This has led Wallerstein to query the analytic utility of such a slippery and contradictory term.[9]  At the very least, the study of a revolution should not be divorced from the formative events of preceding decades.  If the Irish “Revolution” of the 1910s actually began in the 1870s, are we correct in even calling it a revolution?  Thinking of periodisation in such terms certainly calls into question the analytical purchase of the very idea of an Irish “Revolution.”

Moreover, Irish historians, until recently, have reassured themselves “that nothing that happened on the European continent need disturb the tranquility of their scholarly lives,”[10] as R.M. Douglas has recently observed, in a statement as barbed as it is accurate.[11]  Indeed, much of the literature on the so-called “Irish Revolution” of 1912-23 has had surprisingly little to say about other contemporaneous revolutions, not the Bolshevism of Russia, Hungary or Germany, nor the anti-clericialism and land seizures of Mexico or the colonial transfer of power to the Wafd in Egypt.  If there was a Revolution in Ireland in the 1910s, it remains to be seen to what other revolutions it might be compared?

The scholar of nationalism John Hutchinson, and the British imperial historian Stephen Howe, have both labelled Irish revisionist historians ‘methodological nationalists’, due to the manner in which they avoid such comparative analyses and shy away from questioning the historicity and ontological reality of the Irish ‘nation.’[12]  Adopting a more satisfyingly comparative approach to the study of Irish nationalism or studying it through alternative categories of analysis – such as gender, race, or capitalism – would not only address this basic problem of Irish historiography but would also, I believe, call the idea of an Irish “revolution” further into question.  In my own work, I have suggested that “Irish Revolution” is a questionable term.  At the very least, it is worth considering the events that followed 1916 as examples of what Gramsci called a “Revolution without a Revolution.”[13]  Moreover, the “Revolution” contributes to a periodisation that ignores how much remained the same before and after formal independence, how much Ireland remained economically tied to Britain within the broader capitalist world-system, and how great social change is a slow process and does not usually erupt in one dramatic and discrete moment of rapid change.[14]   It is perhaps well past time for Irish historians to abandon their “Irish Revolution.”


Aidan Beatty is the author of Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938, recently awarded the American Conference for Irish Studies’ James S. Donnelly Prize for Best Book in History and Social Sciences.  He has a PhD in History from the University of Chicago, has held fellowships at Concordia University (Montreal) and Trinity College Dublin, and currently teaches at Wayne State University, Detroit.

Title imageEamon de Valera, A cyclostyled cartoon leaflet headed ‘Ireland at the Crossroads .. Vote for De Valera and the Road to Freedom’, relating to the East Clare by-election of 1917 where De Valera was victorious, with his (later) signature.

Further readings:

Aidan Beatty. Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).

Israel Gershoni; James Jankowski. Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986).

Michael Laffan. The Resurrection of Ireland: The Sinn Féin Party, 1916-1923 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

Senia Pašeta. Before the Revolution: Nationalism, Social Change and Ireland’s Catholic Elite (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999).


[1] Erez Manela.  The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anti-Colonial Nationalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] Israel Gershoni; James Jankowski. Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986) p.40.

[3] David Fitzpatrick, Politics and Irish Life, 1913-1921: Provincial Experiences of War and Revolution (Cork: Cork University Press, 1998) 2nd Edition, pp.49, 62.

[4] Senia Pašeta. Before the Revolution: Nationalism, Social Change and Ireland’s Catholic Elite (Cork: Cork University Press, 1999).

[5] Conor Kostick. Revolution in Ireland: Popular Militancy, 1917-1923 (Cork: Cork University Press, 2009) 2nd Edition.

[6] Dan Breen.  My Fight for Irish Freedom (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1924) p.254; P.S. O’Hegarty. Victory of Sinn Féin: How and It Won It, And How It Used It (Dublin: Talbot Press, 1924) 178-180.

[7] Claims on Property: Sinn Fein Manifesto, Handbill. National Library of Ireland MS 33912 (11), Piaras Béaslaí Papers; Michael Laffan. ‘Labour Must Wait: Ireland’s Conservative Revolution.’  In: P.J. Corish, ed. Radicals, Rebels, and Establishments (Belfast: Apple Tree Press, 1985).

[8] Anne Kane.  Constructing Irish National Identity: Discourse and Ritual During the Land War, 1879-1882 (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011).

[9] Immanuel Wallerstein. The Modern World-System III: The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy. (Berkeley CA: University of California Press, 2011) 2nd Edition, p.3.  This bold claim is part of Wallerstein’s broader methodology, strongly influenced by Fernand Braudel, in which a conventional focus on specific historic moments is replaced by investigations of longer-term “conjunctures.”

[10] R.M. Douglas. ‘“Not So Different After All”: Irish and Continental European Antisemitism in Comparative Perspective.’ Aidan Beatty, Dan O’Brien, eds. Irish Questions and Jewish Questions: Crossovers in Culture (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2018, forthcoming).

[11] Though it must be said that the emerging transnational turn in Irish history-writing is certainly countering this.  Ciaran O’Neill, Catholics of Consequence: Transnational Education, Social Mobility and the Irish Catholic Elite, 1850-1900 (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2014). Enda Delaney, Irish Emigration since 1921 (Dublin: Economic and Social History Society of Ireland, 2002). See also the collection of essays O’Neill and Delaney edited on “Beyond the Nation: Transnational Ireland,” Éire-Ireland, 51, nos 1 & 2 (Spring/Summer 2016).

[12] John Hutchinson. ‘Irish Nationalism’. In: Boyce, D.G., O’Day, A. eds. TheMaking of Modern Irish History: Revisionism and the Revisionist Controversy (New York: Routledge, 1996); Stephen Howe. Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture  (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000). 

[13] Aidan Beatty.  ‘An Irish Revolution Without a Revolution.’ Journal of World-Systems Research, Vol. 22, No.1 (2016) pp.54-76.

[14] Aidan Beatty. Masculinity and Power in Irish Nationalism, 1884-1938 (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016).

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